Wowie, time does fly when you are having fun, doesn’t it? Ten days of summer vacation has just flown by in a flash; goodbye July and hello August.
For now, I am still here in Croatia, sitting in my air-conditioned apartment, drafting this article. I have just returned from the beach after a late afternoon lunch and a dip in the Adriatic. Tomorrow we will begin preparations to return to the capital city where we will catch our flight home on Monday. It has been a real blast coming to Croatia and I’d do it all over again in a heart beat ~ this country is so amazing. Special thanks needs to go out to Marek, R’s online game buddy, and his wonderful wife for hosting us when we arrived in Zagreb, eight days ago. It is only because of Marek’s persistent cajoling that got us here in the first place.
Day 1 : Arrival in Zagreb and a pig-out session in the hills.
On Friday, the 26th of July, we departed Amsterdam at 11:50 a.m bound for Munich. We had packed up our dog’s belongings and prepared him to be taken by Nora + Michal, our friends and by default Doopey’s foster parents. I think Doopey knew we were leaving him that day; he kept following me around the house while I was getting last minute things in order. Then he sat on the front door mat, asking to come along. I shooed him aside and he gave me the saddest face he could muster, complete with wet, droopy eyes. Breaks my heart every single time, but they always say it is best to not exacerbate the situation by fawning over the dog and creating a scene at the door. Sad eyes or not, I closed the door behind me without so much as a wave goodbye. I wanted him to think I was going out on one of my usual trips to the shops. Nora and Michal would come round in a couple of hours to pick him up and all will be forgotten.
Anyway … so we arrived in Munich and had to kill a couple of hours before finally boarding our jet en route to Zagreb. It was a small jet, the smallest I have ever been on. Just twenty six rows of seats, two seats on either side of the aisle. It felt more like a coach than a jet, to be honest, and I wasn’t too crazy about that. The thing that makes me nervous about small planes is that you feel every single bump and tilt during the flight. The slightest hint of turbulence and it feels like the plane is ready to fall apart. Landings are the worst (or maybe it just seems that way?); a little bit of cross-wind is enough to tip the plane sideways. Let’s just say landing on two wheels isn’t my cup of tea. Regardless, we landed safely at Zagreb’s Pleso International Airport and we proceeded to pick up our hire car, drove to Marek’s office and picked him up as well.
The heat in Zagreb is unbelievably hot, the kind you feel radiating from every building and off every pavement. I believe when we landed the thermostat gave a reading of 34ºC. It felt more like 44ºC …. it was hard to breathe.
Once indoors it wasn’t any better for the inside of the house had heated up. Marek lives in a very beautiful house by the way, (plus two kitties) … it is spacious both inside and out. Large balcony enough for a dining table, a barbecue and about twenty people, and a garden that backs up onto a private woodland. He and his wife graciously gave us the use of their room, which was the coolest room in the house, and for that I shall forever be thankful.
That first evening we said we would take them both out to dinner at a restaurant of their choosing. All I said was that I wanted it to be a place that served good Croatian food. It would be my first introduction to the local cuisine, and I wanted it to be a good one. So it was decided that we would dine at a place called Restaurant ‘Kod Debelog’, which translates in to ‘The Fat Man’s Restaurant’. Pretty apt name seeing as which the owner was a gentleman of ample proportions.
The restaurant was located up in the hills north of the city center. Temperatures were only slightly kinder up there amongst the trees and the undulating terrain. The restaurant itself is a small place, which looked more like a private home than a restaurant. Ample seating was available on the terrace so that’s where we parked ourselves, under the sloping wood-beamed roof. There were only two other tables occupied and this made me feel a little unsure of the place. Marek said this place came highly recommended by a pal of his so I gingerly took his word for it. Secretly tho, I prayed it would live up to said recommendation.
The owner was told that we were visitors from a foreign land, eager to sample the bounties of his offerings. A loooooooong conversation then ensued in Croatian between our hosts and the owner as he passionately went though the menu and described each dish with gusto. R., being ever the hungry bear that he is got impatient and attempted to hurry things along. In my opinion he should never be allowed out in public when he is hungry because this leads to unreasonable grumpiness. Eventually, the dinner dishes were decided upon. We ordered eight to nine dishes and they were to be brought out in courses … but first, no dinner can begin without the obligatory shot of rakija.
Rakija is an alcoholic beverage that is typically made from the distillation of fermented fruit, however, other things like herbal flowers and grass can be used as well. It is served as an apéritif before a meal or as a welcoming drink when one arrives at a house, and it is traditionally served in shot glasses. Some are nice and sweet, while others burn your insides. Since my arrival I have sampled rakija made from pears, blueberries, cherries, honey and, believe it or not … grass! That last one was a real killer; it nearly sent me blind … it tasted like pure alcohol! Rakija can be found everywhere in this country and can be bought for as little as EUR 5 per bottle in the supermarket.
Dinner soon started arriving at our table, beginning with some awesome looking smoked wild boar and game sausages. They looked much like salami but they had a taste all of their own, salty and smokey with a very pleasant savoury aroma. After the smoked appetizers came a heavily spiced blood sausage called krvavice. This was my first go at such a thing and it was remarkably tasty. Off to a good start here … and after those two knock-out dishes the rest of dinner just got better and better. So this place was everything Marek’s friend said it was in the end. Heh, I should learn to have more faith in others.
Other dishes that night included grilled squid rings, pork fillets done two-ways, breaded and deep fried mushrooms, mushroom caps stuffed with ham and cheese, Spanish-style chicken stuffed with cheese served with black olives and mlinci, a type of thin sheet of dry bread. Inevitably, a Croatian meal is never complete without the presence of ćevapčići, (small mince meat fingers much like koftas), therefore they were promptly brought to our table with a side of onions. These morsels of meat would prove to be a hot favourite with me and I have eaten it on the regular throughout my holiday. They are like the ultimate fast food and you can find them being sold virtually everywhere, in any establishment, from the local street vendor, to supermarkets to top notch ethnic restaurants. I like them soooooo much that I vow to make some of my own from scratch when I get back to Amsterdam. Ćevapčići (‘cevaps’ for short) are traditionally served in a pita pocket topped with lashings of local sour cream called ‘kajmak‘ and thinly sliced yellow onions. They seem to be very specific on the type of onion used; only the large yellow ones will do.
After dinner there was no more room for dessert even if we wanted to. We were stuffed to the brim and were ready to turn in for bed. The amazing thing about dining out in Croatia is that food is cheap. You can eat very well for very little money, and that was exactly what we did, so long as you stay away from tourist traps. Food down on the coast, especially if you wind up in places like Dubrovnik can be pretty expensive. Other than that you are safe. Typically a meal for two people plus two drinks each would cost about EUR 15 total.
The next morning, while R. was out being a hero driving round the city looking for a fried breakfast, I was happily enjoying my first kiflice experience with a steaming mug of Turkish-style coffee, out on the veranda with Marek and wife. I was quite excited about the little pastry because it most definitely was a kipferl, the predecessor of the famous French croissant. Kipferls originated in Austria and we all know that at some point during its long and colourful history Croatia was once under the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So in effect, I was holding a little piece of culinary history in my hands, and it made my morning … even tho it tastes nothing like the soft buttery layers of a freshly made French croissant.
Day 2 : A near death experience, BBQ with the lads and much EVE Online talk.
After R. had returned to the house roughly around 1 p.m feeling hot, bothered and still starving, we all decided to trot down to the nearest bistro and have whatever food they had on offer. We didn’t hold our breath but we managed to rustle up some good grub. R. had his standard bacon + eggs (*rolls eyes) while I had a delightful light lunch of grilled squid and blitva skrumpirom ~ a dish made from wilted Swiss chard, boiled potatoes, garlic and olive oil. Apparently, here on the Dalmatian coast blitva is the side dish of choice when eating fried or grilled seafood. It sounds bland but in reality it was bursting with flavour. Super yummy.
The bistro, much like the entire city of Zagreb, was practically empty. Everybody heads off to the coast during the summer months, completely deserting the inland towns and cities. Most shops are closed and many houses lie vacant, giving off a sense of being in an abandoned town. Marek assured us however, that this state of near emptiness is only temporary, and on normal days the streets are so chock full of cars it’s almost impossible to get where you want to go in a timely fashion.
After lunch we drove to the supermarket to pick up food and drinks for the BBQ dinner Marek was throwing for all his EVE Online buddies. So we piled in to our rented Volkswagen Golf and zoomed off to the local hypermart, scarcely realizing we were about to have a close shave with disaster. The hypermart was located on the other side of some train tracks which had a level crossing. In the process of crossing the tracks, R. noticed the gates start to silently come down …. no alarm, no bells, no flashy lights. Nothing! There was a nano second of confusion in the car and then R. simply stepped on the gas, just in time to get under the lowering gate in front of us. We made it without scratching the paint job on our roof … but I was kinda freaked out that it actually happened. Minutes later we saw a large goods train come thundering past. Like I said, I was freaked.
That night we ate heaps (again!) with a medley of pork chops, ćevapčići, chicken wings and spicy sausages. It was almost unbearable to watch Marek slave over the blazing coals on such a hot summers day, but the food that came off the grill was well worth it. There were about a dozen people and most were EVE players, so inevitably conversation was heavy on the tech-talk. I quietly tuned out at some stage …
Day 3 : Visits to Hungary and Slovenia (without Marek).
The next day R. and I had planned on doing a bit of road tripping to the neighbouring countries. The plan was to pop into the city of Varaždin, have a good look around and then move on to Hungary for lunch, by lake Balaton. We made all our travel plans known to Marek the night before and he expressed a great desire to accompany us. However, come 8 a.m there was no sign of him at our front door. We decided to give him a few more minutes, then we called his mobile. No answer. Oh well, he must still be sleeping off the booze from the BBQ … so we left, en route to destination number one : Varaždin.
We only went to Varaždin because it was on the way to Hungary and also because people at the party recommended it. The main highlight was the Old Town Square and the fortress. We didn’t stay very long coz it was getting hot and because there really wasn’t anything else we wanted to see apart from the two main attractions. Again, being summer, the town was rather deserted, except for people sitting under cafe umbrellas drinking the day away.
Varaždin is famous for its baroque styled buildings and the beautifully designed Varaždin National Theater. The old city is built defensively, with the fortress in the middle because historically the city had to endure raids by the Turks. The castle had some interesting artifacts and tomb stones dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries. But like I said, we didn’t stay for very long in the town.
We pulled into the very busy town of Keszthely, Hungary just after mid-day. The reason for all the hubbub was lake Balaton, the biggest body of fresh water in Central Europe. Keszthely is a favourite summer resort destination for many Hungarians and everywhere you looked there were people walking about in swim wear, carrying inflatable pool floats. Cars were parked everywhere, even where they weren’t meant to be, and the police were having a field day booking people.
The area certainly was set up to support the tourist trade because there was a huge food court just off from the parking lot and the aroma that came wafting from the grills made my tummy do a little dance … except we didn’t have any local currency. HOW ANNOYING!! I really wanted to have a stonking piece of chicken schnitzel with cold potato salad, but the place didn’t accept card. So we ended up eating somewhere else and this one didn’t serve chicken schnitzels. It wasn’t until after we got home that Marek told us most places in Hungary will accept Euros. Those of you who are planning to visit Hungary, take note! I ended up settling for pork schnitzels instead with a side of parsley potatoes.
After lunch we pushed off to our final destination, across the border in Ptuj (Pah – tooie), Slovenia. Why? Because we wanted to finish of with a drive through yet another country, because we can. That’s the beauty of Europe, isn’t it? Have each of your daily meal in a different country and be back where you started by sundown. Border checks only happened when we left Croatia and were coming back in. None happened between Hungary and Slovenia. In Slovenia we stopped in to see yet another castle coz that’s just how we roll. It really was just an excuse to stop, drink more iced tea and buy souvenirs for my mother … who doesn’t travel herself yet manages to fill her fridge door with magnets from all over the world. The drive back into Croatia was pretty special tho. This area of the drive was completely flanked on both sides by dense forest and at times we were the only ones on the road for a long stretch. Stunning untouched scenery. Sign posts out pop up intermittently along the way reminding drivers to slow down or to be extra vigilant due to the potential for animal crossings. I am used to seeing signs with deer on it, but here in the hills of Slovenia there were warnings for bears and even wolves. It’s nice to know there are still pockets of wilderness fit for wolves and that they all haven’t been exterminated.
It was a full day of driving in the summer heat, but we were very entertained and happy. Next day we were to leave Zagreb for the coast, stopping in at the Plitvice Lakes National Park.